Salvation In the Worlds Religions

Salvation in the World’s Religions
Unitarian Coastal Fellowship
June 16, 2013
© Rev. Sally B. White
Salvation in the World’s Religions. In some religious traditions, salvation
is the whole point. In other traditions, salvation is beside the point entirely.
This morning, lets talk about salvation from the perspectives of
Unitarianism, Universalism, and various world religious traditions from East
and West.
A story from Bill Houff, from Infinity in Your Hand. The story is called
Flying Fish. [Pp. 116-11].
Theology is an academic discipline, and soteriology is the branch of
theology that deals with theories of the meaning and the means of salvation.
I would like to begin by reading an excerpt from a textbook I used in
seminary: Christian Theology: An Introduction. The author, Alister
McGrath, writes,
“Salvation” is a complex notion. It does not necessarily have any
specifically Christian reference. … Salvation can be a purely secular notion,
concerned with political emancipation or the general human quest for
“Even at the religious level, salvation is not a specifically Christian
idea. Many – but not, it must be stressed, all – of the world’s religions have
concepts of salvation. They differ enormously, in relation to both their
understanding of how that salvation is achieved, and the shape or form
which it is understood to take.” [Alister McGrath. 1997. Christian Theology: An
Introduction. pp. 386-7].
“Salvation.” Maybe it can be a purely secular notion, but in common use,
it’s a religious word, and that certainly does make it complex. For religious
concepts touch us at spiritual and emotional levels, and these are more
affecting, more reactive, than the more restrained level of our intellect.
Nonetheless – or perhaps I should say therefore – it is useful to begin by
looking at the derivation of the word itself.
Our English word salvation comes from a Latin word, salvare, which
means, “the action of saving.” But salvare is a Church Latin translation of
the Greek word soteria (to save, or to make safe). And there are some who
point to an even earlier Greek root, sozo, which means, “healing,” or
“making whole.” []. This is the
derivation I prefer: salvation as healing and health and wholeness.
This exercise in word derivation reveals two quite different attitudes about
salvation. An understanding of salvation as “to save, or to make safe”
implies that, in the absence of salvation, we are lost, or unsafe, or somehow
threatened. But salvation as healing has a different connotation, one of
inherent health and wholeness, which may, at times, be lost, but which can
be restored. As we look around the world, and the world’s religions, we can
find both attitudes, and we can see them to be rooted in different
understandings of ultimate reality and ultimate truth: the nature of the
universe, the nature of humanity, and the relationship between the two.
Surely these are among the most basic of religious questions. As is the
question about “what happens after I die?” which for many is the ultimate
context for thinking about salvation.
Among the most ancient religious traditions we know are those that
originated in India, and the oldest of these lives on today as Hinduism. In
Hindu philosophy, life in this world is nothing more than a transient
manifestation of an eternal reality, an eternal truth, a universal spirit that is
within us and all around us; that contains us and is contained within each
one of us. Nothing tangible is really real – not even ourselves, for “I” am
only an illusion. In the Hindu poem Bhagavad-Gita, we read, “as a [person]
leaves an old garment and puts on one that is new, the Spirit leaves [its]
mortal body and then puts on one that is new. … Beyond the power of sword
and fire, beyond the power of waters and winds, the Spirit is everlasting,
omnipresent, never-changing, never-moving, ever One.” [Bhagavad-Gita
2:22,24]. Each person lives a life, and then dies, and then is reborn again
and again, in an endless cycle. Each life is a fragment, a spark, of the
everlasting, omnipresent, ever One Spirit – temporarily clothed in a temporal
body; something like a fish out of water. The ultimate goal, the ultimate
hope, is for the spirit to be freed from this cycle of being clothed in one after
another mortal body; it is to be released from this earthbound life and
allowed to dissolve back into eternity – a word that means timelessness. The
Hindu word for this is moksha: liberation, escape, freedom, deliverance. We
can think of it as “going home,” as the flying fish goes home to the water
from which it came.
In Buddhism, the cycle of birth and death and rebirth is called samsara and
we are bound to the cycle by our illusions about what is real and what is
impermanent, by our attachments, our desires, and our cravings for the
things of this world. Buddhist thought teaches that, through diligent practice
over many lifetimes, one can learn to let go of these illusions and cravings
and achieve nirvana, a state of perfect peace and the end of the suffering that
illusions and cravings create. Nirvana is not a place where one goes – not
the water as distinct from the air, not heaven as distinct from the earth – but
rather, nirvana is a state of non-being altogether. One is not in the water;
one is the water. Hinayana, the older school of Buddhism, is dedicated to
the salvation of the individual through monastic self-discipline and practice.
Mahayana Buddhism developed slightly later, and proposes the ideal of
salvation for all, through disciplines of popular devotion and universal
secular service. [Heinrich Zimmer. 1989. Philosophies of India. p. 18n].
These Indian religious traditions imagine earthly life as a particular
manifestation of the one reality that is, at once, creator and creation, God
and the world. Life – birth into the world – in some sense limits our ability
to participate fully in that oneness: we are restricted by the mortal body, by
the ego, by the spiritual garments that confer upon us what we think of as
our identity. And salvation removes those restrictions, returns us to full
participation in reality, even though in truth, we were never really separate at
all, except in our limited, human understanding. What happens after we die?
We return to where we came from, we are free – and we cease to be. When
we achieve nirvana, we are “blown out,” as a candle flame. And we are
deeply, entirely, at peace.
In contrast, the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and
Islam – understand God and the world to be distinct and different from each
other – like the flying fish is substantially different from the water or the air.
The world is not the embodiment of Spirit, but is, rather, the creation of
God. God may have many aspects or attributes, but God is, somehow, a
being, so that it makes sense to think that God should have a name, and ears
to listen – or not. And human beings are also creatures, but we are not
divine; to think ourselves so is some kind of blasphemy. And there is no
sense of cycle upon cycle of birth and death and rebirth, but rather a linear
journey through time, from a nothingness before birth through one life on
earth. The question of what happens after we die, then, looms large in these
In Judaism, the oldest of the three, God has a special relationship to the
Jewish people. At the very beginning of creation, the world was a perfect
place – God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good
[Genesis 1:31]. Things soon began to deteriorate, and Biblical history is the
chronicle of covenants in which God lays out for the Jewish people how they
should work with him to make themselves and the world better.
Commandments and laws are to be followed, to the end that finally, at the
end of time, at the End of Days, everyone in the world will be absolutely
good, every person will do only that which is absolutely fair and just, and
there will be no hunger, no war, no injustice or meanness, every day will be
a day of freedom, and every person will be the image of God. [Harry Gersh.
1971. When a Jew Celebrates. p. 9, 249-50]. Salvation, then, is not individual,
though it depends on the shape of one’s individual life, and how one has
worked to make not only the world but also humankind better. Rather,
salvation is the redemption of good and honorable people from the exile
which is living in this state of less-than-perfection. The Jews have been
chosen as exemplars, showing the way for all people. But anyone who
honors God and lives a good and holy life may, at the End of Days,
participate in the Kingdom of God in which original goodness is restored.
Until that day, during life one works towards goodness; after death, if one
has lived a good life, one waits until the Kingdom will come, and one will
live again.
Christianity emerged out of Judaism. In Christianity, salvation is individual,
and it is mediated through Christ. Alister McGrath writes, “The
distinctiveness of the Christian approach to salvation lies in two distinct
areas. In the first place, salvation is understood to be grounded in the life,
death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; in the second, the specific shape of
salvation, within the Christian tradition, is itself formed by Christ.” [Alister
McGrath. 1997. Christian Theology: An Introduction. pp. 387]. Rather than waiting
for the future establishment of the Kingdom of God, some Christians
imagine that kingdom to be already established, not here on earth, but rather
in heaven. Each worthy individual, at when they die, is transported or
reborn to that place. The variations on the theme are many, and no doubt
familiar to you. In some, God is somehow more present in heaven than on
earth. In some, there is a concept of hell – a different destination after death,
or perhaps just not-heaven. But a key concept in Christianity is the
unworthiness of most individuals; they are imperfect or broken, sinful or
evil. Divine intervention, in the form of Jesus’ teachings, or his crucifixion,
or his direct saving influence, is necessary to confer worthiness. Salvation,
then, is saving in the sense of making safe from the danger or the threat of
not-heaven, or of hell, or of eternal separation from God. And there is an
imperative about salvation, for the alternatives are unthinkable. Even so,
there are traditions within Christianity which echo the Jewish concept of
working together to make a better world for all, drawing on teachings in
which Jesus exhorted his followers to feed the hungry, care for the sick, fight
injustice, and make this world a better place.
In Islam, which also arises from Jewish roots, salvation is also seen as
admission to heaven after the end of a life on earth. Like Christianity, Islam
recognizes that human beings commit hurtful or unskillful acts – bad deeds –
that qualify as sins. But in Islam, we are born sinless. We will err, for we
are imperfect, but God is merciful, and God forgives those who sincerely
repent of their sins and replace bad deeds with good deeds. In Islam,
salvation is earned by right action, and not just by right belief.
Unitarianism and Universalism have roots in Christianity, but both traditions
dissented from the Christian position that most people will not be saved.
Historically, neither tradition disputed the central concepts of God, of human
nature as less than divine or perfect, of an afterlife that was somehow,
somewhere different from life on earth. But the Unitarians believed in the
saving power of human character and human action in the world. Through
the use of reason and willpower and hard work, it was within the power of
every person to develop a high moral character, and thus earn salvation for
themselves. Universalists had a different emphasis, believing that God, by
nature, was a loving deity, and would never consign any human being to
eternal suffering or separation from God. Somehow, in the end, the
Universalist God would find a way to save every single person. Salvation,
for the Universalists, was truly universal. Thomas Starr King, who was
raised a Universalist in the first half of the nineteenth century and later
served as minister in a Unitarian church, famously said, “the Universalists
believe that God is too good to damn us forever, and the Unitarians believe
that they are too good to be damned.” [Richard Trudeau. Universalism 101. pp. 48,
83]. Today’s Unitarian Universalists tend to focus more on this life than on
an afterlife that we can only speculate about. We tend to invest our energies
in working to bring healing, health, and wholeness to this world, however
transient or impermanent this world may be.
“Salvation,” Alister McGrath writes, “is a complex notion.” There may, in
truth, be as many ideas about salvation as there are ways of living – or
names for God. In the end, in this life, it is all speculation. In the end, in
this life, we need not think alike to love alike.
Let there be a time of silent reflection, on all that we have heard, spoken and
The bell will lead us into silence, and music will lead us out.
May it be so.